What is Sheryl Sandberg trying to say?

Sheryl SandbergSome of the earliest critiques of the critiques of Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial feminist manifesto-cum-rallying cry, complained that few of its hostile critics had actually read the book.

Well, reader, I have now read it.  And here’s my bottom line:  It’s a book that is fundamentally confused about what it wants to say.

Let’s start with the title. When we say “lean in,” what do we mean? As best I can decipher it, the answer is: It depends.

On the one hand, Lean In is a clarion call to a very specific set of barricades, urging women to aspire to the highest pinnacles of corporate and political life. “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes,” Sandberg writes in the introduction.

On the other, the book purports to be addressing Everywoman. “I am writing it for any woman who wants to increase her chances of making it to the top of her field or pursue any goal vigorously,” Sandberg writes in that same introduction. “This includes women at all stages of their lives and careers, from those who are just starting out to those who are taking a break and may want to jump back in . . . . This book makes the case for leaning in, for being ambitious, in any pursuit.”

I’m not buying it.

One big hint as to the highly targeted agenda that lurks beneath this talk of inclusion is Sandberg’s statistical backdrop. Her claim that women “have ceased making real progress at the top of any industry”—an assertion that essentially frames everything that follows—draws its supporting data from only two realms: Fortune 500 companies and national politics. Among the roles ignored in this data capture: University presidents, law firm partners, investment bankers, federal judges, journalists and authors, film producers, medical doctors, technological innovators, entrepreneurs, and non-profit leaders.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the statistical frame is the fact that most of the female leaders about whom Sandberg writes so admiringly themselves fail to register on this screen. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem is invisible. So are White House Project founder Marie Wilson, Barnard President Debora Spar, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, and Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin. (And beyond the book, to name just a few, we have the three female U.S. Supreme Court Justices—Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor; Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust (in fact, half of the eight Ivy League schools now have women presidents); WHO Director General Margaret Chan; and Hillary Clinton—who would have made the cut during her time in the U.S. Senate but been dropped from Sandberg’s leadership stats during her years as Secretary of State.)

By none of this do I mean to suggest that women don’t face enormous obstacles on myriad professional fronts—or that the world would not be well served by having far more women in influential, high-profile positions. Rather, I’m balking at what strikes me as a constricted and restrictive notion of leadership. I’m uncomfortable with the word “leadership” being invoked as proxy for “leadership of a Fortune 500 company” or “leading a nation,” with the implicit assumption that this is “real” leadership, leadership in its purest, most significant incarnation. And, as I’ve written before, I’m uncomfortable with the notion that the most lucrative and powerful positions are necessarily the most valuable uses for 21st-century talent and passion.

That said, for all my issues with the book, there was much about it I liked. I often found myself writing “Yes!” in the margins or underlining a point to refer back to later.  Sandberg is engaging and likeable, and in the course of reading, I came up with a theory: In the beginning, she envisioned writing a book for younger versions of herself, “high potential” aspirants on the business fast track. But from her publisher’s perspective, the book needed to be far larger—bestsellers aren’t written to niche markets, and this needed to be a bestseller. This would go far towards explaining the book’s schizophrenic nature—its bouncing back and forth between the notion that leadership means looking like Sheryl Sandberg, and the idea that it could equally well mean looking like Sheryl Sandberg’s mother—a schoolteacher who turned down the opportunity to become a school administrator because she wanted to stay in the classroom. (“My mother has leaned in her entire life . . .  . She has always contributed to her community and the world. She is my inspiration,” Sandberg writes in what was for me a whiplash-inducing conclusion.)

In a graduation speech at Barnard that contained the seeds of Lean In, Sandberg exhorted young women to “Find the right career for you and go all the way to the top”—“to lean into your career and run the world.” Recalling this speech, she rhetorically asks: “If we can’t tell women to aim high at a college graduation, when can we?”

When can we? Well, if you’re asking me, I’d say the answer is Never.

The goal shouldn’t be to impose our own choices or strategies—to decide what success and happiness look like—but rather to foster the capacity to look within, to identify a uniquely personal vision of what it means to lead. For some, it will look like being COO of Facebook. For many—probably most—I suspect it will look quite different indeed.

How about zero dollars per word—is zero good for you?

ZERO take 2There’s a classic New Yorker cartoon where a guy is standing in his high-rise office talking on the phone: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never—is never good for you?”

I was reminded of this last week when veteran journalist Nate Thayer used his blog to publish an email exchange with an Atlantic editor interested in “repurposing” a piece Thayer had previously written if he would first revise it. For this, she offered the princely sum of . . . nothing.  (By these standards, humorist Calvin Trillin’s editor–the “wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky,with his offers “in the high two figures”–was positively profligate.) Thayer lost no time in registering his outrage.

“I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children,” wrote Thayer, later noting the irony of having once been offered an Atlantic retainer of $125,000 a year for six articles.

The post quickly went viral, with both supporters and detractors flocking to weigh in. To his fans, Thayer was a hero, finally saying “enough is enough” to ever-more exploitive journalistic overlords. To his critics, Thayer seemed both entitled and unrealistic, foolish in his alienation of the very people who might hire him.

A follow-up piece on Gawker.com—itself an acknowledged user of writers who work for free—used the flap as an object lesson in the ongoing devolution of journalism into a profession largely populated by those with ample resources. “Becoming a successful writer—or journalist or actor or wigmaker—is an ambition that, like pretty much everything else in society, is rigged in numerous ways to favor people who start off with money,” Cord Jefferson trenchantly observed.

Not much disagreement on that score. However, there was plenty about what the ultimate takeaway should be.

“When Thayer was being offered $125k/year I was being offered $140k,” noted my friend Anne, an expat American lawyer, now living in England. “I’d love to be on 2002 rates again—who wouldn’t? But the reality is much different.”

A Gawker.com commenter had this to say:

Maybe they expect people to write for free, because plenty of people are ready and willing to write for free. If you want to make a lot of money, go be an investment banker or start a business or whatever. If you want to write, then do that, but don’t whine about how you’re getting paid squat for doing it. You made your choice.

My friend spends hours upon hours working on his model trains which he displays and are enjoyed by many people who see them. He never once asked to be paid for his efforts. Don’t act like your calling is so much more noble and worthy than his.”

Law—one of my several previous professions (and another that, incidentally, is fast heading towards meltdown)—works by analogy:  Is X more like Y or like Z? In that spirit, I found myself musing over whether a freelance writer is, in fact, similar to a guy who plays with trains. As usual with analogies, I could see the facts both ways. In the pro column: Thayer enjoys writing. He, like the fanatic hobbyist, is doing it because he chooses.  In the con:  Writing is also Thayer’s profession, one he settled on with an eye to making a living at a time when such a plan didn’t seem wildly risky. No, he would likely never be rich. But he’d be paid more than . . . zero.

My favorite legal doctrine–and yes, as a matter of fact, I do know how geeky that sounds–goes by the name of reliance. (I also wrote about it here.) Simply put, if you induce me to “change my position” based on your claim or promise, you can’t later change your mind and just tell me to go away. For example, if you sell me a product to wash my car, I’m entitled to rely on the fact that it will do just that—and without stripping the paint.

Law school exams are called issue spotters. They consist of “fact patterns”—stories of sorts—packed with legal issues that the test taker must first identify then analyze. The world after the Great Recession is filled with tales like Thayer’s, with people whose lives have been upended by new technologies and seismic global changes. They (we) relied on what we knew, on what we were told.  If life were an issue spotter exam, it might pose the following questions: Was this reliance justified? Is there a remedy?

Note: Thanks to my writer friend Amy Rogers who helped me pull that New Yorker cartoon from the recesses of memory.

Why Sheryl Sandberg is beside the point

Sheryl SandbergThe official publication date for Lean In is still a day off, but as the Sheryl Sandberg tsunami approaches landfall, its historic scope and impact are readily apparent.

Like any self-respecting treatise in the Internet age, Sandberg’s opus—currently  #1 on Amazon.com—has spawned wave upon wave of impassioned commentary, crashing ashore in predictable stages. First comes the announcement, then the critique, then the backlash against the critique, then the meta conversation about the conversation. (For the record—and likely due to time constraints and a problematic Facebook habit–my own contributions tend to come towards the end of this cycle.)

My initial plan to track Superstorm Sheryl quickly fell by the wayside—there was simply too much coming in too fast for me to absorb (at least absent a decision to lean out of my full-time job). That said, I’ve been paying attention and reading quite a bit. And more and more, I find myself stuck on a single question: Why aren’t we just taking what we can use and forgetting about the rest?

A somewhat baffled Paul Krugman seemed to say as much this morning on ABC’s This Week: Of course, Sandberg’s prescription is not for everyone. It seems to be quite helpful for some. What is the big deal?

So what is the big deal? (Because, clearly, there is one.)

The more I think about it, the more I suspect that some of the debate’s ferocity stems from an atavistic faith in the myth of the Right Answer. Many of us, me included, grew up in an era where female ambition often found its outlet in efforts to be the Good Girl, to fulfill goals set by others, not to define our own. The successful Good Girl’s stock in trade was her ready store of right answers. Not right for her, but right period. She cultivated excellent listening skills and became a world-class mimic.  In return, she got gold stars and As. She did not get raped or killed.

Put differently, perhaps one of the reasons we care so desperately about what Sandberg thinks is because we are aren’t entirely clear what we think ourselves. We latch on to her ideas—or, alternately, lash out against them—because we don’t see (or aren’t comfortable with) other more nuanced options. This shouldn’t be surprising. We live in an age when the competing voices are loud and many—and often far outstrip our capacity to choose among them or shape our own course. (Intriguingly, even Sandberg herself sounds familiar with the dilemma: “Every woman I know feels guilty about the choices they’ve made,” she told 60 Minutes this evening.) We are, in the words of Harvard’s Robert Kegan–who put forth this theory in a book of the same name–“in over our heads.” (N.B. This is a problem not just for women but for pretty much everyone.  Another place it’s especially visible–and anxiety-provoking–is, as I wrote here, around career choices in the aftermath of the Great Recession.)

But there’s another reason that it’s a big deal, and it’s an important one: The danger that a vision intended to inspire could become an oppressive cudgel. The danger that women already struggling–and they are infinitely more numerous than Sandberg and her black swan peers–will be told that, if they’d just lean in more, Presto!, problems solved. Not that anyone’s likely to say this in so many words, or that it’s what Sandberg intended. But these things have a way of seeping in. The process is gradual. That Sandberg and other uber achievers have become the most visible faces of women’s workplace issues is, as Carolyn Edgar compellingly writes, both absurd and disturbing.

Late last month, the ever-thoughtful Kate Gace Walton, who runs the blog Work Stew, mused that Sandberg’s choices would never be her own. “For me personally, a book that would resonate more might be called ‘Lean In, Gasp with Horror, and Run the Other Way,'” she quipped. At the same time, she took the opportunity to take the conversation deeper—to ask friends and readers how they’d responded, what was true for them: “What path makes sense for you, and what changes (in yourself, and in society) need to happen to make that possible?” she wrote on Facebook.

This is another kind of leaning in that I think we could use more of—a leaning into our own lives, to our own values and needs. How do we decide whose advice to follow? Where do we look for guidance? Here, Sheryl Sandberg is beside the point. We can only look to ourselves.

Porridge and Clouds #2

Bowl of clouds

Porridge & Clouds is an occa­sional series on things I’m think­ing about + things that make me think.

Those Crimson Women Circa 1978  and the Flavors O’ Success

My musings on the obstacles that may have kept women on the Harvard Crimson in my era from evolving into uber successful journalistic superstars has sparked some lively conversation—especially timely as the Sheryl Sandberg tsunami approaches landfall on this International Women’s Day.

Among the comments: My writer friend Cathi Hanauer (Gone, The Bitch in the House) made a compelling case for the myriad ways motherhood may figure into this equation, while college classmate Arthur Kyriazis pointed out that a number of women of my Crimson era had, in fact, been phenomenally successful. Both of these are excellent points, and I revised the post slightly this morning to clarify what I meant.

To quickly recap: I didn’t mean to say that Crimson women of my era didn’t go on to amazing careers, just that—with one salient exception, not in my college class—none became the superstar journalistic brands that an astounding four of the men from my freshman comp did. Similarly, while I don’t have kids myself, it’s obvious to me that moms face unique challenges—but at the same time, I don’t really see that accounting for what I described. It wasn’t that the women of my era didn’t triumph in careers known for their over-the-top non-family-friendly demands—investment banking and corporate law being two examples—it’s that the paths they followed didn’t involve the public act of claiming their voices.

Also, a coda: A college friend who read the piece emailed me, wondering if I remembered a few Crimson women she’d known: Susan Chira, Suzy Spring, and “Nancy” someone. For Susan Chira my answer was a resounding Yes: She was president of the Crimson a couple years ahead of me and went on to a career at the New York Times. (If she’d been in my Crimson comp, she’d have seriously undercut my lede.) “Nancy” didn’t ring a bell. Suzy Spring sounded familiar. “Did she go on to the Herald?” I emailed back. The answer: “SHE MARRIED JACK WELCH.”

Follow Your Heart 2.0: Notes from the Field

A few weeks back, I wrote about how economic pressures are paving the way for a new understanding of what it means to “follow your heart”—one informed by an awareness that bliss is generally easier to come by when you can pay your bills.

In this context, I was intrigued by popular travel blogger Mariellen Ward’s post about her decision to trade the peripatetic life that informs the BreatheDreamGo blog inspired by her passion for India for life in her native Canada. What I love about this piece is its insight into the realities of finding stable footing on the road less traveled–and how this is always a work in progress. In particular, this:

“On my first night in Goa, when I couldn’t sleep because of fear and hunger, I suddenly realized: I’m done. I’m homesick, I’m tired of trying to make a living as a travel writer and blogger, I’m tired of traveling with limited funds, I’m tired of the struggle, of TRYING so hard for so little in return, and I want to go back to Canada. Just like that. I don’t know if it was the house I was staying in, or the planetary alignment, or maybe just the timing. But that night in Goa everything changed.”

Another wonderful post about the highly personal process of forging a meaningful life comes from my friend Lisa Maguire, now contemplating a career change from investment banking to horse care as the still-contracting finance industry continues to bleed jobs.

“It occurred to me that this was the first meaningful work I had done in years,” she writes with characteristic wry humor, describing the experience of volunteering to muck out stalls. “Work that had tangible results (I could see the clean stall) and a purpose (the rescue relies solely on volunteer labor). It was also work that I was able to do without any politics or controversy. Unlike working in an investment bank, no one disputed who was going to fill up which water bucket; no one stood next to your just-filled bucket and claimed your work as their own; no one emptied your just-filled bucket and then refilled the bucket, saying you had not done it right; no one debated the process controls and regulations around filling up the buckets, taking out measuring sticks to see how far from the lip of the bucket you’d filled.”

Jobless Rate Falls to 7.7%!  Big News—Or Not?

Plenty of excitement about this today—here’s the New York Times piece—but how excited should we really be? I, for one, am putting off judgment until I know more about the quality of the jobs created—specifically, how salaries and benefits stack up against the pre-Recession jobs they replace.

Also: In case you haven’t noticed, jobs are still disappearing. Don’t believe me? Check out the new (and apparently ongoing) series about being laid off after the age of 50 from business journalist Jon Friedman, who is sharing his evolving story in a series of lively posts. Here’s the first.

Managing Stress in Stressful Times

It’s one thing to apply stress-management techniques to the ordinary annoyances of daily life—traffic, noisy neighbors, being put on hold by Comcast—but what if you’re facing far more serious issues shaped by larger economic trends? Think job loss, foreclosure, major investment losses. Last week, Plan B Nation had a chance to put this question to a panel of experts at Harvard School of Public Health, part of a fascinating panel discussion livestreamed from HSPH’s Leadership Studio. Well worth watching (which you can do here).

Recipe: Quinoa Black Bean Burgers     

A recipe! There’s always a recipe here on Porridge and Clouds. Last time it was for red velvet cake. This time, it’s quinoa black bean burgers. They come highly recommended by me (assuming you like such things).